Volunteering and Children of Intermarriage


There’s an interesting story in the Jewish Week, Is Volunteering Jewish?. Repair the World commissioned a “first of its kind” study of the attitudes and behaviors of young Jewish adults when it comes to volunteering. What jumped out to us was the rare finding in studies of this sort of something positive about intermarriage: “children of intermarriage are more likely than are the children of two Jewish parents to volunteer.”

One of the study authors, Fern Chertok from the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University, speculates:

“We spent some time thinking about why that might be,” says Chertok. “It could be that having a non-Jewish parent and non-Jewish family members leads you to see that your needs and those of people from very different groups are not so different,” she says. “As a result, your sense of obligation is more expansive.”

Another possibility is that intermarried parents who want to encourage religious and moral development may see volunteering as something that is easy to agree on and to encourage their kids to do, she says. “It’s a nonreligious avenue to encourage passion about moral responsibility. Helping others — that’s in every religion.”

A key finding of the report is that young Jewish adults do not have a strong Jewish perspective on volunteering — they don’t see it as an extension of Jewish values and shy away from volunteering with or through Jewish organizations. Children of intermarriage reportedly are less likely to have a strong Jewish perspective on volunteering. I’m still glad to see more volunteering with less Jewish perspective by children of intermarriage, than the alternative.

About Ed Case

Ed Case is Founder of InterfaithFamily and works at IFF Headquarters in Newton, MA.

5 thoughts on “Volunteering and Children of Intermarriage”

  • In my experience the latter explanation is correct.  Also, kids of intermarriage where I grew up were often connected to the Unitarian Fellowship, where volunteerism was the ethos.  Last, let’s face it, kids who don’t go to Hebrew School have far more time to start volunteering. 

    Of course, a connection to volunteering could foster connection to Judaism.  It’s an opportunity to say, “we’re about the same thing, but you can enrich it with spiritual value to boot.” 

    Unfortunately, far too much of the social justice work in Synagogues is connected to Israel, and the I-P conflict.  And, to be quite honest, that’s just not going to appeal to me, or other kids of intermarriage I know.  (In fact, the tribalism often involved usually alienates.)

  • Dan O.,

    Your comments indicate a number of assumptions based on your experiences that are different from my experiences.

    Your comment about “kids who don’t go to Hebrew school” indicates an assumption that kids from intermarriages don’t go to Hebrew school, but I think that many if not most of the kids in interfaith marriages that I know did/do go to Hebrew school. My own kids went to a full 6.5 hours a week of Hebrew school (at a Conservative synagogue) and had another hour a week of private tutoring for 1.5-2 years before their bar/bat mitzvah because we wanted them to be able to lead a full service and read Torah/Haftarah as well as the other kids in our lay-led minyan in which over 90% of the kids attend Jewish day school. And yes, we still did/do plenty of Jewish organization-related volunteerism as a family. My kids actually look forward to the holiday food box packing and were very disappointed with they missed one time due to a schedule conflict. Other kids of intermarriages that I know attended the three-day/week Hebrew school of their Reform shul.

    In my experience, I have not seen that “too much social justice work in Synagogues is connected to Israel and I-P conflict”.  I have found that in the several synagogues and independent minyanim in which we have been active members, most of the social justice work that children are involved in has been about aid to the needy: working at soup kitchens and other places that supply food to needy people, putting together food boxes before Pesach and Rosh Hashanah so that needy Jewish families can celebrate the holidays properly and with dignity, doing drives for toiletries and clothes and books for homeless or poor people or victims of natural disasters, visiting nursing homes….

    Remember too that a lot of volunteer work that is not at all connected to a synagogue. The examples I listed above were often for Jewish beneficiaries, but sometimes not. The study cited counted all volunteering including those activities with no Jewish connection at all. In fact, the study said “Only a small portion of Jewish young adults, 10%, indicated that their primary volunteer commitment was organized by Jewish organizations.”

    I do agree with the idea that interfaith families may find that volunteering can be a way to reinforce moral ideas that everyone can agree on. It is rather nice to see an aspect in which interfaith families seem to be better with respect to raising children with strong moral values. Sometimes I feel that people assume that when people violate one set of norms (by intermarrying) that they must be throwing out all the rest and are more likely to be “morally lacking” simply because they chose to marry outside their faith.

  • Debbie B.,

    You’re right, I’m overgeneralizing my experience.  I grew up amid a Israel and intermarriage obsessed Conservative Communities on Long Island.  Unfortunately, my Israeli mother had no idea what Reform Judaism was, or that experience might have been very different.  Because at the time, the Consservative community wasn’t just unwelcoming, it was borderline hostile.  You don’t go to a Hebrew School at a synagogue where people refer to intermarriage as little Holocausts.  

    What I said probably has more to do with gruff Long Island culture than anything else.  So, point taken.



  • Dan O.,

    Yes, the Conservative movement was quite hostile to intermarriage as late as the 1980’s. I consider it a stroke of good luck that I didn’t know of the movement’s official views until I had been active in welcoming Jewish communities for over two decades, and by then even those official views had changed. When I read some of the RA responsa suggesting punishing and shaming intermarried Jews, I was horrified. And I appreciated how special the first rabbi I ever met was. He was a Conservative rabbi who introduced me to Judaism when I was grad school student and I came to his Hillel with my Jewish boyfriend. He may have been disappointed that I did not convert before we married despite my having attended shul nearly every Shabbat and holiday for three years. But if so, he kept those views to himself. But he never pushed me to convert and was never anything but warm and gracious to us both.

    I did not realize at the time that he was really pushing the envelope of what he was permitted as a member of the RA when he allowed my husband to read Torah at the Shabbat just before our (secular) wedding. To my husband it was an “aufruf”, although our marriage was not recognized Jewishly, and Rabbi B. must have understood how important it was to my husband to demonstrate his commitment to Judaism even as he prepared to marry a non-Jewish wife.

    But Rabbi B. was welcoming to everyone who came to the Hillel, including an undergrad who had severe Cerebral Palsy, and a Mexican-American grad student who was exploring Judaism and later converted, and a non-Jewish Jewish Studies grad student who went on to become a tenured professor in Talmud—while remaining a non-Jewish woman! And although I converted two decades later, I feel he was instrumental in bringing me to Judaism. I was sad that he had died in a car accident about a decade before so that I could not tell him. Being an observant Conservative Jew really fits me best, so I’m glad that I wasn’t scared off from it earlier.

  • Hi Ed!

    I’d like to share an interfaith-related story idea for the IFF Network Blog, as well as a press release with all the information you will need.

    Please contact me at gheller@associated.org so I can send it to you.

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